The Russian National Orchestra at Zellerbach

Dave and I went to hear Mikhail Pletnev conducting the Russian National Orchestra at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley Friday night. The program began with a short cycle of three songs composed by Pletnev himself, based on Yeats poems. The music seemed rather ordinary to me, no surprises in how the words were set, and the poems by Yeats are not particularly exciting subjects to begin with, but the orchestration was clear and full of vivid colors. The soprano, Lisa Delan, was very good. The best of the three was the last, a setting of the poem “When You Are Old”.

Next was Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, with a young violinist named Stefan Jackiw as soloist. Jackiw has plenty of technique and it was a very showy performance, lots of dazzle but not much heart. However, he looks very young, so one can hope he’ll grow into it. The second half of the program was Shostokovich’s Ninth Symphony, a piece I don’t think I’d ever heard before. Even without knowing anything about the musical codes that I gather are said to be planted in the melodies, it wasn’t hard to figure out why Stalin thought Shostokovich was flipping him the bird.

Pletnev’s conducting throughout was extremely low-key, often barely keeping time, yet the orchestra was always very crisp and polished in their playing. The encores were two more pieces by Pletnev, very jazzy and a lot of fun; once again the orchestration was startlingly bright and colorful, while the melodies and harmonies seemed much less inventive.

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